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As St. Louis water bills rise, social service agencies worry about impact on clients

St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann washes her hands on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the station’s headquarters in Grand Center.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The second of two rate hikes for City of St. Louis water customers kicked in Jan. 1. Social service agencies say they are hearing from more clients who need help paying water bills, but assistance is limited.

Average residential water bills in the city of St. Louis are up to $88 every quarter, after the second of two 20% rate hikes took effect on Jan. 1.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved the increases in June. When the first increase took effect on July 1, it was the first time water rates had gone up since 2010.

The first increase was expected to generate about $13 million, while the second is expected to bring in about $20 million. Officials are still waiting to determine if the increases are bringing in as much money as expected, but the money has had an immediate impact, said public utilities Director Curt Skouby.

“It allows us to pay our employees and our vendors to order the materials and supplies so that we can go out and make the repairs that are needed to the system,” he said. “Currently, we're hiring a couple of contractors to assist us with water main repairs.”

Though the increases passed nearly unanimously, many aldermen expressed concern about the impact they would have on lower-income water customers. The data is not yet available to know how many accounts are now delinquent compared to before the hikes, but social service agencies say that anecdotally they are hearing from more clients who need help paying their water bills. Skouby said the water department will direct people who need help paying their bills to social service agencies.

But the vast majority of utility assistance programs provide funding only for gas and electric bills. And while clients can sometimes work around not having one or the other, there are fewer ways to adapt if water is cut off, said Zenique Gardner-Perry, senior director of programs at the Guardian Angel Settlement Association.

“Unless you're like, we're not going to pay the water bill. Instead, we're going to use baby wipes, or we're going to buy bottled water and drink that sparingly,” she said. “We don't want folks living like that.”

Renters will often have their water bill rolled into the monthly payment, said Emily Ayers, family empowerment director at Crisis Nursery St. Louis. But for people who use the federal housing support program known as Section 8, water, sewer and trash are their responsibility.

The amount of assistance someone receives for a housing voucher is based on their income, Ayers said. So if a tenant picks up additional hours to be able to pay a higher water bill, “then their rent goes up also. So it’s kind of like they can’t get ahead in that sense.”

Skouby said people who are behind on their water bills can set up payment plans with the city, but there is no direct financial support available.

“That’s something that we look at periodically,” he said.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.